Nature Conservation for Future Generations – Seizing the moment in Manchester

Earlier this year more than 220 policy advisers, practitioners, students, natural and social scientists, and agency, NGO and business staff gathered in Manchester Metropolitan University for this first conference jointly organized by the agencies and BES.

Dara McAnulty and Sir John Lawton

‘We are not lost, we just have not been found yet!’ Inspiring words from 14 year old, Dara McAnulty from Northern Ireland, making a passionate plea for his generation.

We had a lively mix of 20 minute talks, panel Q&A sessions, three minute speedy presentations, one (yes, one!) minute policy and practice pitches, workshops, posters and networking. Fun, taxing, challenging and tremendous were words uttered repeatedly.

Former President and conservation guru, Sir John Lawton, set the scene for us fantastically. What, cried John, will become of nature reserves and protected areas – initially set in a countryside that was more benign to nature in the early 20th Century but increasingly hostile to it in post-war Britain? ‘The Lawton Report’ (2010), Making Space for Nature, called for ‘bigger, better, more, joined’ protected areas as a necessary but not sufficient response. What has happened since then?  This set the tone for much of our discussion on nature conservation, with the sustainable use of resources an essential part of our approach.

We devised some draft principles to guide how nature might be secured for future generations, and here we use the headings to summarize the tone of discussions.

Understanding how nature works

In nature, change is the only constant. People and nature always interact. Change is not the same as ‘loss’. We cannot re-create the past. Nature was not in a perfect and final state before people encountered it. People, at least at sea, are part of the predatory system. A vital function of conservation is to maintain flexibility, including genes and species diversity as the building blocks and potential for change. It is essential that conservation takes a global approach to inform priorities for the UK, and repeatedly we asked what is the UK globally important for?

Questions of scale for both space and time need to be given more attention in conservation. Nature and natural processes are usually well defined at a local scale, but we need to recognize the relevant social and economic scales (typically regional or global) to identify relevant stakeholders and interests, essential for solutions and monitoring progress.

Although there are many good examples of species management, these can often polarize views, and should be viewed in a broader landscape. This larger scale requires us to address issues such as climate change, land use and natural resource management.

We need better measures of healthy, resilient and functioning ecosystems that allow reporting at local and national scales – a particular science challenge. We need new ways of working in planning and evaluation, including integrated approaches to natural resource management and natural capital accounting.

Contrary to popular belief, the deep oceans are rich in life, but these are highly vulnerable due to slow processes, and contaminants and plastics show that dilution is not the solution to pollution. Factoring this into choices about using deep sea resources raises questions for each one of us in our lifestyle choices – from plastic straws to TV screens; Blue Planet II revealed this brilliantly.

We need to provide the evidence which will help us make decisions to change how we live.

Involving People

Who is conservation for? Dara McNulty stole the show for many delegates with a splendid view from the younger generation. He called for fewer doom-and-gloom stereotyping of young people, and instead urged us to celebrate the work of dedicated young naturalists and organisations fostering a national coalition of young people for nature.

‘Who is conservation for?’

Young people are citizens now and have a right to be part of decision making, with the organization Young Scot, and its partnership project with Scottish Natural Heritage, ‘Re-Route’ as an example of co-design to understand problems and devise solutions. This needs to be a journey, not a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Young people are not a problem to be solved, but a force to be unleashed.

Conservation conflicts result from not tackling the underlying conflicts and power relations between people. Making progress relies on supporting true integration across disciplines, sectors and communities. We need to acknowledge that ecological science provides only one form of knowledge. Conflicts can offer a opportunity to discuss differing world views – but we tend to ignore them or wish them away or express them in terms of ecological impacts and imposed solutions.

Valuing the benefits from nature

The benefits from nature are still to be clearly expressed, especially when we use the language of ‘natural capital’ to communicate what people derive from nature. Many delegates felt we needed to know more about the relationships between ecosystem functions and services before using natural capital – to avoid what they saw as the unintended consequences of commodification and commercialization of nature and corroding its intrinsic worth. A lot of us value nature because of its diversity, tangible beauty and even its alluring complexity – not because we can attach a monetary value to its functions.

We already use scientific, aesthetic, intrinsic and spiritual arguments to support the cause of conserving nature. We need to add the political case for restoring nature, namely its role in our health, wealth and security. Natural capital is a powerful way to communicate that, but we must use a language that excites rather than bores people.

Investing in nature is essential for flood management, carbon storage, water security, food security, climate adaptation and coastal realignment. It came across clearly that investing in nature is investing in us.

Support mechanisms for natural resource management (e.g. CAP – potentially soon to leave us) have prioritized social and productivity goals over the environment. New mechanisms need to put environment to the fore. Ecological and cultural values appreciate over time in many ecological systems, especially woodlands, and we must not lose sight of this.

Several speakers aired the theme of integration, across:

  • nature, inequalities and deprivation;
  • nature and culture (e.g. art, poetry, literature);
  • the shared responsibilities in the value chains for food, not falsely dividing industry from society from nature;
  • the need to include the costs of poor public and animal health and climate for better management of natural resources for people and nature, and
  • food security, and the need to address demand-side issues, including consumption, waste and diets.

We heard that current farming is not sustainable, overall requiring 10 calories of fossil fuels for every 1 calorie consumed. In Wales, every major public body is required to work together to deliver a set of goals underpinning the visionary Well-being of Future Generations Act to make better decisions for people and nature in the long term, and generally improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.

Managing natural resources is far more effective if policy and practice is co-designed and co-produced with practitioners. In remote areas, especially at sea and in the uplands, this helps to reduce the otherwise spiraling transaction costs of monitoring and implementation.

In Summary

Baroness Barbara Young wonderfully highlighted the fantastic stories from our four nations and the power in coming together to exchange knowledge and experience. She highlighted the roles for dialogue, listening, different viewpoints, interdisciplinary working and valuing many forms of knowledge.

Key Messages

  • Brexit is both an opportunity and a threat;
  • Protected areas, habitats and species remain important but need to be considered in the context of ecological resilience and landscapes;
  • We need different ways of measuring the environment and working with others, especially young people;
  • Communication and language is very important;
  • Don’t forget the marine environment;
  • Governments need to make it easy to change behaviour;
  • Young people value nature and need to be empowered.

Next Steps

We will develop the principles aired at the conference for further discussion, hopefully at a BES forum, and respond to Dara’s challenge of fostering a national coalition of young people for nature. Fundamentally, we want to position the BES as a clear voice for nature, making it more secure, enjoyed and fundamentally important to everyone.

We intend to run a follow-up event in 2020, focusing on post-2020 targets and the challenge of landscape-scape approaches, so watch this space!

Clive Mitchell (Scottish Natural Heritage)
Pete Brotherton (Natural England)
Ruth Waters (Natural England)
Catherine Duigan (Natural Resources Wales)
Sara McGuckin (Northern Ireland Environment Agency)
Helen Baker (Joint Nature Conservation Committee)
Des Thompson (Scottish Natural Heritage)